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House Republicans' Secret Weapon: The Ballot Box

Tim Craig

As lawmakers prepare to head back to town next month to try to resolve how to finance transportation projects, it is looking increasingly like the special session might repeat of the pattern of the past two years.

That pattern goes something like this: Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), backed by some Democratic lawmakers, pushes a big tax increase. House Republicans, most of whom have little connection to heavily congested Northern Virginia, kill the proposal. Lawmakers leave town knowing full well it's only a matter of time before they return to repeat the entire exercise.

But House Republicans will be taking a big risk.

With a presidential election this year and a gubernatorial race next year, House Republicans can not afford to leave the impression that they are skirting their obligation to make highways safer and less congested.

Although the tax issue cuts both ways in a high-stakes election, it could reinforce a perception by some Northern Virginians that the state GOP is out of touch with their needs.

Having lost five House seats in the past six months and with all 100 seats up for election in 2009, the GOP is going to need a way to get past this latest debate without being tagged as obstructionist on transportation.

For many Republicans, Kaine's calls for higher sales taxes and vehicle registration fees are not an option. If they support Kaine's plan, many GOP legislators open themselves up to a challenger from the right in the spring primary.

But there is a politically safe option for House Republicans, one that could give them cover to oppose Kaine's tax plan.

They could try to push the issue back on the Democrats by advocating that it be put before the voters in a referendum this fall.

A referendum wouldn't go over well with many Democrats, especially one called for November. Because it is a presidential election year, there will be an influx of voters who don't pay close attention to state politics, and many of them will be hesitant to support new taxes.

And the tax issue has a way of bringing likely Republican-leaning voters to the polls, which could all but guarantee a victory in Virginia for Sen. John McCai n (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

At a news conference Monday to announce GOP opposition to Kaine's tax proposal, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (Salem) and Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights) appeared to begin goading the governor into allowing the issue to be put to the citizens.

"Let's put it on the ballot this November when Senator [Barack] Obama is on the ballot," said Cox, who added that he thinks Kaine will find out "a lot of people are really struggling and are going to tell him they don't want their taxes raised."

Griffith and Cox noted that Kaine's proposal to raise the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to pay for transportation improvements closely resembles measures put before the voters in those regions in 2002.

Despite intense support from then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the state's business community, voters in both regions overwhelmingly opposed the proposal to raise the sales tax by half a percentage point.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the administration is not interested in another referendum. The governor backed the 2002 referendum when he was lieutenant governor.

"Why put it to referendum? It just delays things," Hickey said. "The governor's position is the General Assembly needs to step up to the plate and do its job."

Lawmakers in neighboring Maryland have embraced the referendum as a way to get past their years-long debate over slot machines.

This year, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) introduced a proposal to legalize slot machines at select locations as a way of helping to resolve a $2 billion budget deficit.

The Democratic-controlled House was skeptical of O'Malley's approach, threatening to derail slots as it did when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was governor.

Instead of forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in slots revenue, O'Malley and House Democrats agreed to let the voters decide the issue Nov. 4.

"I've always been a supporter of letting the people decide," Griffith said.

There would be big differences between a referendum in Virginia on transportation taxes and Maryland's ballot question on slots.

In Maryland, polls indicate broad support for legalizing slots. And because the state is heavily Democratic, there is little concern among party leaders about the issue having an effect on the election.

In Virginia, it's not even certain that a tax referendum would be approved in Northern Virginia, much less more conservative Hampton Roads or the rest of the state.

A transportation tax referendum could pass Fairfax County this year, where residents easily rejected the 2002 referendum. But it probably would be a close vote in the outer suburbs of Loudoun and Prince William, two counties key to Democrats' prospects of winning statewide.

But calls for a referendum, even if the GOP knows Kaine won't go along, might become a secret weapon for House Republicans looking to limit the fallout from their no-tax stance.

If the GOP offers a referendum as a solution but Kaine and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) block it, House Republicans will have cover going into 2009. Democrats will have trouble convincing many voters that Republicans are obstructionists when they are willing to let the ultimate form of democracy decide.

And if, by some small chance, Democrats agree to put the issue on the ballot this year or next, Republicans can rally their base to the polls, as they did in 2006 when they backed a referendum to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Or House Republicans could kill Kaine's bill and decide not to offer any viable alternative.

Under that scenario, there will still be a referendum in 2009. But it will be on the political futures of GOP Dels. Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William), Joe T. May (Loudoun), and David B. Albo, Timothy D. Hugo and Thomas Davis Rust, all of Fairfax County.

By Tim Craig  |  May 15, 2008; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Election 2009 , General Assembly 2008 , Tim Craig , Transportation , Virginia Notebook  
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